Restaurant critic, bon vivant, food writer and former food editor for the New York Times, CRAIG CLAIBORNE was born in Sunflower, Mississippi. Claiborne authored numerous cookbooks and an autobiography, “A Feast Made for Laughter,” in which he wrote about his being gay. Claiborne made many contributions to gastronomy and food writing over the course of his career. He helped popularize many ethnic, and at the time bizarre sounding, schools of cooking. He lived through a real revolution in culinary culture in the United States. As he explained in the preface to the revised 1980s edition of his bestselling “New York Times Cookbook.”
Italian was a strange and foreign form of cooking in the 1960s when the first volume came out and access to things as foreign sounding (in the 1960s) as “pasta” was difficult. Claiborne also helped popularize great chefs like Paul Prudhomme as few people outside the Deep South at the time had any awareness of Louisiana’s Cajun culture or its unique culinary traditions. Along with Julia Child, Claiborne has been credited with making the often intimidating world of French and other ethnic cuisine accessible to an American audience and American tastes. Claiborne authored or edited over 20 cookbooks on a wide range of foods and culinary styles.
One of the most famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) episodes in Claiborne’s career occurred in 1975 when he placed a $300 winning bid at a charity auction for a no price-limit dinner for two at any restaurant of the winner’s choice, sponsored by the American Express company. Selecting his friend Pierre Franey as his dining companion, the two settled on the prestigious Parisian restaurant Chez Denis where they racked up a $4,000 tab on a five-hour, 31-course meal of foie gras, truffles, lobster, caviar and rare wines.
When Claiborne later wrote about the experience in his “Times” column, the paper received a deluge of reader mail expressing outrage at such an extravagance at a time when so many in the world went without. Even the Vatican and Pope Paul VI criticized it, calling it “scandalous.” Despite its scale and expense, Claiborne gave the meal a mixed review, noting that several dishes fell short in terms of conception, presentation or quality. Claiborne died at age 79 in 2000. He bequeathed his estate to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.